Brooklyn Nets owner says choice to not have Kyrie Irving play is a team decision, 'not a decision about him'

NEW YORK -- Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai hopes Kyrie Irving "gets vaccinated as soon as possible," but he is unsure when the point guard will return to the team.

Tsai, however, remains certain that Irving has to be vaccinated to play for the Nets as long as New York City continues to have its mandate.

"I don't know," Tsai said in a sit-down interview with ESPN when asked when he thinks Irving will play again. "Either he has to be vaccinated in order to come back if the New York mandate is still in place. And don't ask me when they may or may not change the New York mandate. Again, if you ask the people that are making decisions at the city level, they are going to say we are going to rely on science, rely on what the health department tells us [in order to proceed]."

Tsai said he has not spoken to Irving since the team's collaborative decision on Oct. 12 to not have him be with the team until he complies with New York City's COVID-19 mandate of getting at least one vaccination shot in order to play at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden.

"Last time [I] talked to him was when we made the decision that he was not going to be playing until something changes," said Tsai, who owns the team with his wife, Clara Wu Tsai. "We haven't communicated since then."

Added Tsai: "Obviously Kyrie has his own belief so I respect that. But we have to make a team decision. This is not a decision about him. This is a decision about where we go as a team. And it is just not tenable for us to have a team with a player that comes in and out, no home games, only away games. What do you do in practice then?

"This week we have a whole stretch of six home games, so we won't have Kyrie. So it became pretty clear to us. We are very much aligned among myself, [GM] Sean [Marks], coaching staff that this has to be [the decision], especially since we're a team with pretty lofty aspirations. We don't see any other way of running this team."

A group of protesters gathered outside Barclays Center before the team's home opener last Sunday. They were holding "Stand with Kyrie" signs and chanting, "No vaccine mandate. Stand with Kyrie." At one point, a handful of those demonstrators tried to make their way to the front door of Barclays Center before being held off by security.

"I just think that it's cavalier for people to hijack something like this when life and death is at stake," Tsai said. "People shouldn't make it into a political issue. So when you see protestors, they're definitely making a political statement. These guys are not basketball fans. They could care less whether someone is on the court playing or not.

"They're hijacking the issue, but it's dangerous because we have a life-and-death situation. The fact is, if you are not vaccinated and you catch COVID, you have a much higher probability of getting very, very sick and end up in the ICU and possibly die. That's the consequence."

Tsai has been a major advocate of getting vaccinated.

"I don't think it's a matter of belief," said Tsai, one of the co-founders, board of directors member and executive vice chairman of Alibaba Group. "I think it's a matter of fact. It's science.

"... We're now able to open up the economy, people are able to socialize, go to games, full-capacity Barclays Center, because people are vaccinated. That is just a fact. I don't think it is a belief one way or the other."

Irving said on Instagram Live on Oct. 13 that he isn't pro- or anti-vaccine but that he also respects those who aren't getting vaccinated and have lost their livelihoods due to that decision.

"I chose to be unvaccinated, and that was my choice, and I would ask you all to just respect that choice," Irving said. "I am going to just continue to stay in shape, be ready to play, be ready to rock out with my teammates and just be part of this whole thing. This is not a political thing; this is not about the NBA, not about any organization. This is about my life and what I am choosing to do."

Before training camp started, Marks was confident the Nets would not have issues getting the entire team vaccinated.

"I don't think anything changed," Tsai said. "It was always a process for us to make sure every player gets vaccinated -- during the summer, going into training camp and going into the start of the season. And then we found out that Kyrie was the only player that hasn't been vaccinated. So we spent some time talking to him, try to understand his views and also for us to tell him our perspective on the facts, the science and all of that."

The Nets have said they will welcome Irving back if he complies with New York City's mandate. Tsai mentioned Irving -- who is eligible to sign a four-year, $187 million extension with Brooklyn -- multiple times along with Kevin Durant and James Harden when discussing the team's play and future.

"I hope that Kyrie can be part of the team, part of Brooklyn long term," Tsai said. "But I am not going to get into the extension thing. I think we have an immediate question of whether he can play this season, and I hope he gets vaccinated as soon as possible."